Make Believe
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Fourteen-year-old Derek McKee doesn’t have a lot of friends his age. Maybe that’s because while most kids are playing video games or hanging out at the mall, Derek prefers to stay at home and practice. He isn’t practicing the typical teen stuff, either—stuff like basketball or the guitar or some cool dance moves; he’s practicing his magic.

Derek is one of six teens featured in first-time director J. Clay Tweel’s documentary, Make Believe, which follows the young magicians as they prepare for the prestigious Teen Magic Championship at the 2009 World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas.

Although Tweel occasionally shows the kids practicing and performing their tricks—particularly during the competition—Make Believe isn’t really a movie about magic tricks. So if you want to learn how to saw a friend in half, you won’t find any answers here. Instead, the film’s focus is on the kids—on their backgrounds, their personal struggles, and their dreams, as well as their successes and failures during the competition.

Some of these magical kids are from the States—like Derek, Krystyn Lambert, and Bill Koch. Others, however, travel around the world to compete—like self-taught magician Hiroki Hara of Japan and Siphiwe and Nkumbuzo from South Africa, who took up magic to keep themselves out of the trouble that many Capetown teens get caught up in.

The competitors’ personalities are as widely diverse as their backgrounds. Krystyn and Bill are the typical overactive overachievers. Siphiwe and Nkumbuzo are fun-loving and playful. And Derek and Hiroki are shy and a little bit awkward. But all six have found their identities in their magic, and they all have one thing in common: their unwavering determination to give their very best performance.

For the most part, the kids make pretty interesting subjects. They’re motivated and determined—yet, despite the fact that they’re all talented performers, preparing for the biggest challenge of their young lives, they’re still kids. They’re nervous and insecure and lonely and even depressed (well…except for Bill, who’s often irritatingly overconfident). And you’ll fall in love with many of them along the way.

As you might expect, though, the most fascinating parts of the film take place on stage, when you get to see clips of kids’ acts, which show their own personal style—from Krystyn’s old-school magic show to Siphiwe and Nkumbuzo’s humorous soccer-themed routine. And Hiroki’s stunningly fluid and natural performance is…well, it’s absolutely magical.

Make Believe doesn’t stray too far from the usual documentary formulas—and the kids aren’t quite as memorable as some other documentary subjects (like Billy Mitchell from The King of Kong, a wildly entertaining documentary that Tweel helped to produce). But the young magicians and the brief glimpses of their performances make it an enjoyable documentary—one that will have you reaching for a deck of cards, to try to impress your friends with some tricks of your own.

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